Review: The Books They Gave Me

The Books They Gave Me by Jen Adams

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I may have misrepresented my child self to you. Compared against my adolescence (or the Wombat Years, as they’re better known), my childhood outbursts can seem tame and downright civil. To this image, I counter my wanton destruction of my brother’s comic books. These weren’t comics like the ones in my longbox; these were hardbound copies of Asterix either my family brought from France when they moved here or my father brought back from his trips for my brother. With colored pencils and my tiny, furious fists, I ripped them to shreds, forcing my brother, my elder by nine years who considerably outclassed me physically, to call on our mother to make me stop.

My mother, still physically intimidating because I was still smaller than her (although not for long), reprimanded me so well that even now, as a grown woman, I cannot shake off what she instilled in me: first, you don’t look funny at books that don’t belong to you. Second, you do not write in books. EVER.

Except for that one time in high school, this means that I have never dedicated a book to someone. I give people books, sure, often and joyously, but I never dedicate them in the way that is central to most of the stories collected in Jen Adams’ The Books They Gave Me. Adams runs the popular tumblr of the same name, where users can submit their own stories about books that they were given. The submissions are untagged on tumblr, and so they are in this book, placed together without any apparent organization. Or the names of the submitters. Several, obviously, want to remain anonymous, but it sits a little poorly with me that while the contributors who are fine with having their names used are included in the back, there’s no denotation in the actual entries themselves. Adams isn’t even cited as an editor curating submissions, but the author in whole. I know this is probably a publishing thing rather than a her thing, but I still looked at it askance.

Books about books are catnip to the bibliophile; I added four books to my enormous reading list immediately after finishing. But the true heart of these stories are the relationships between the book giver and the book receiver, not the books themselves. Most of the stories collected here are about lovers, with family in a distant second. One contributor states that “[y]ou can tell almost everything you could need to know about a person by their favorite literature” (194), something that Adams clearly agrees with (or, at least, the bulk of her contributors do). Teenagers read books to impress potential lovers; readers force non-reader lovers to read a beloved book and fear that they will never connect; lovers leave literally subtextual notes in the pages of a favorite book for their beloved to find.

Since so many of these books are linked to “failed” relationships (and why do we think of relationships as “failed” if they “only” last a finite period of time?), the voyeuristic thrill of seeing what certain books mean to certain people is tinged with a generous helping of rubbernecking. After their lover cheats on them, a person burns the beloved book in the kitchen sink and damages the countertop permanently. There’s also a person who, after a nasty break-up, steals a book to break up their ex’s beloved Hemingway box set. “Every time I see it sitting on my shelf,” they tell us, “I smile knowing my bookshelf is one fuller, and his boxed set is one short” (163). How delightfully nasty and cruel.

Less delightful is discovering contributors with unhealthy attitudes towards relationships. One man’s book is Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan, selected because his own wife gave him this story of a man’s wife who will not read his unpublished manuscript—a situation that mirrors their own. It’s hard to sit there and read him get furious at her for not reading his manuscript, even though she’s said that is not something she’s willing to do. Use your words, son. Use your words.

There were two other entries I took umbrage with. Someone who supposedly adores Middlesex consistently misgenders Cal and only references to him as “Callie” and “she”, despite Middlesex being about an intersex man’s transition. And another person frames their relationship as “She read Barthes; I read Tolkien,” concluding that “she’s still reading on linguistics and queer theory; I’m still reading fantasy novels” (216). The joy of reading collections like this is sampling the inner workings of people’s minds—how do they connect to books? Is it how I connect to books? That entry was like skipping through a bibliophilic field and smashing into a brick wall. I realize this contributor was probably just emphasizing how opposite they were, but all I could think was, you can read Barthes and Tolkien! I do it all the time! It’s only my entire deal!

To come back to dedications, reading The Books They Gave Me made me realize that there’s something other than the memory of my spitting mad mother keeping me from dedicating books. One of the last entries is from a woman who highlights a book her lover gave her, a book that made her realize that “[t]he woman to whom he gave the book exists only in his mind. She is not me” (229). I hate creating obligations for people, and giving someone a book with an inscription telling them how much it meant to me and how much I hope it means for them… I just hate to hype things and I hate to assume things about people. There’s nothing wrong with dedicating a book, of course, it’s just that I’ve gotten too many gifts for a Clare that exists only in the minds of others to even chance doing that to someone else with something as important as a book. It is simply not for me. My nephew’s bibliophilic trousseau (which I am working on!) will come with a lovely letter, but not a scratch on the books themselves. I’ve learned my lesson, Maman!

Bottom line: The Books They Gave Me satisfies the voyeuristic thrill of discovering what books mean what to certain people, but the organization and author credits are weird. If you’d like.

I rented this book from the public library.

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